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For Carlos Guangorena '76, it's helping others
finance theirs ...
The American Dream
By Michael Balchunas
He was born in Mexico, but Carlos Guangorena's path to the
presidency of Plaza Bank really starts on Park Row Drive, a potholed
street skirting Elysian Park on the east side of Chavez Ravine in Los
Perched cheek-by-jowl on the hillside are a cluster of small stucco
bungalows painted pink and red and green. Fences, bars and locked gates
separate each house's thin sliver of patio from the street. A moldering
sofa lies upturned in a trash-strewn lot. A few steps away, the hillside
drops precipitously to the Pasadena Freeway far below.
The freeway sounds like a rushing river day and night. "Extreme poverty
is how I would describe it," says Guangorena, a 1976 Pomona graduate, of
his childhood. "There were times when we didn't have anything to eat. I
always knew there wasn't a Santa Claus, because lots of times we'd get
our gifts from the church. And I'd see a tag on one that said 'Boy, Age
10' - hey, that's me!" But life there was far from dismal. The woods of
Elysian Park beckoned across the street, and the hilltop offered
sweeping views of the city. "Amazingly, there's still a little community
up there on this one little 10-house street, and it hasn't changed much
in probably 50 years," says Guangorena. "We could hear the announcements
from Dodger Stadium at our house. Sometimes we would try to sneak in
during the seventh or eighth inning if the gates were open and watch the
end of the game."
Guangorena's family had immigrated from Delicias, Mexico, when Carlos
was 2. His father came as a laborer in the Bracero program. "Bracero
means 'arms,' and during World War II, when our troops were overseas,
the U.S. needed workers, so they brought in 'guest workers' from Mexico
to help," Guangorena says. "The Bracero program allowed you to get
permanent residency, and you could bring over your family. My
grandfather was already here and brought my dad. It was a chance for a
Guangorena excelled academically, bypassed second grade, and won a
scholarship to attend Cathedral High School, a nearby parochial school.
As a senior, he was accepted at Columbia University, but says he
hesitated to go "from one poverty-stricken place in East L.A. to
Harlem." He was encouraged to attend Pomona by Theodore Tsukahara Jr., a
senior lecturer in economics at the College, who had an association with
Cathedral High. Things did not go well at first. "I felt different. I
felt like a stranger, although I never felt discriminated against at
Pomona," Guangorena says. "I almost transferred after my first year.
There was too much culture shock. I had felt I was at the top of my
class in high school, but at Pomona, everyone had been at the top of
their class. The food was not what I was used to. There were not a lot
Basketball kept him from leaving. He played all four years. "I had a
sense of belonging as part of the team. So I hung in there, and it soon
got better." As a senior, he began dating his future wife, Linda J. Lang
'79, a non-Latino from the Pacific Northwest.
It was a turbulent time in poor urban areas across the nation. There
were riots in East Los Angeles. At the Claremont Colleges, students from
the Black Studies Center and the Chicano Studies Center planned a
takeover of the Pendleton Building in a protest involving cuts to a
program for minority students and tenure for the centers' faculty.
remember getting a call from MEChA, the Chicano organization, saying we
were going to do it this morning," he says. "I wore a brown band to
support it, but I was not one of the people who took over the building.
I felt I wanted to act through the system. I thought there were other
ways to do it, although I do believe that at certain times people may
have to engage in civil disobedience."
After graduating, Guangorena studied for a master's in business
administration at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was
among several students chosen to assist the admissions board in
reviewing applications from Latinos. "We'd say, 'This is why we think
this person is OK despite their SAT scores.' It might be a single mother
holding down several jobs, and they'd admit them, and they would
flourish. It's something that I think made a huge difference, and I'm
very proud of it."
Guangorena had known for years what he wanted to do
"I made the decision way back in high school that I
wanted to be a banker," he says. "I really wanted to get out of the
poverty that I grew up in. I thought that a bank branch manager was a
pillar of the community, and that if I became a branch manager, I could
give something back. That was my intent."
He started as a commercial
loan officer at Bank of America. After marrying, he and his wife moved
to Seattle. Guangorena worked his way up at several banks, eventually
becoming a senior vice president at Wells Fargo. The poverty of Park Row
Drive was far behind him.
Then Michael E. Sotelo, a
construction-industry executive in Seattle, approached Guangorena with a
plan that took him back to his roots. Sotelo, who grew up in the Boyle
Heights section of East Los Angeles, was part of a small group of
people, most of Latino heritage, who wanted to open a bank that would
serve Washington's growing Latino population. They saw both a business
opportunity and a chance to help educate and elevate an underserved
segment of society.
"Sixty percent of the Latino community in Washington
is unbanked," says Sotelo. "One of the most important things we can do
is to increase financial literacy for Latino business people, as well as
for other adults and even children. There is a huge opportunity up
The founders wanted Guangorena to become president and CEO of the
new bank. "We started by looking at who was the best candidate, Latino
or not," says Sotelo. "Carlos' name kept coming up. He was very well
known and respected. The fact that he happened to be Latino was a double
Sotelo made Guangorena an offer he thought the latter could not
refuse. But Guangorena did. "I think he turned us down three times,"
Guangorena had his reasons. Sotelo's proposal,
Guangorena thought, could put his own hard-won achievements at risk. "I
was very comfortable where I was," he says. "It's a gamble. It's going
after a segment that is still less than 10 percent of the state's
population. Also, I've always been kind of in the background. I never
have seen myself as the person to be up front. But Mike Sotelo said,
'I'm from Boyle Heights, and that's why I know you're the person to do
this. I know who you are and where you came from. I know that you have
the drive and the ability to do this. This is what you should do.'"
Edgar Martinez, a former professional baseball player for the Seattle
Mariners and a highly admired figure in western Washington, was
considering investing in the new bank. "The clincher," says Guangorena,
"was that Edgar Martinez told me, 'Carlos, if you're in, I'm in.'"
Bank opened in 2006. The name was chosen because plaza means the same in
English and Spanish. Its main office is downtown, in the 44-story U.S.
Bank Centre. A branch office in a suburb south of Seattle provides
retail banking services. "We had our first financial literacy class in
February," says Shauna Plante, the branch manager, who is bilingual. "We
are trying to work within the community, to make people feel comfortable
with the financial institution itself."
The bank provides wire transfers
that permit workers to send money to Latin American or other countries
for $5 per transaction. Remittances to Mexico from the United States
totaled about $23 billion last year, with about 66 million transfers,
according to the Bank of Mexico.
The bank's business model is centered
on commercial lending. "We feel that our path to success is to be a
commercial bank with a Latino focus, not to be a Latino bank per se,"
says Guangorena. "Our goal is to be the best commercial bank in the
The greatest impact the bank can have on the Seattle area's
Latino population, Guangorena says, is through "access to capital.
That's where we feel we can make a huge contribution to the community.
We're not going to sacrifice our underwriting standards, but we feel
there are areas we can understand, for example, in granting credit. We
can also educate the retail banking community. Latinos are not just
poor. It would be foolish to ignore that there's a lot of money in the
Latino population. We want to show our community we can grow with them
as they become more wealthy. People categorize us as Latino bankers, but
we're bankers first. That's why we're going to be successful."
Guangorena's own life is a template. From Park Row Drive, he could look
out across the tumbledown neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine to the
mirrored-glass towers of downtown Los Angeles. Now, from his corner
office on the 37th floor of the U.S. Bank Centre, his view ranges from
Seattle's southern suburbs to emerald-green Puget Sound, to the white
mountains of the Olympic Peninsula, and north to the Space Needle and
"This is pretty heady stuff-for a kid born in Mexico, raised in
the barrios of East Los Angeles, to be the president and CEO of a
commercial bank. That's truly the American dream," he says. "It worked
out for me, and I'm proud of it. I'm humbled by it, too."
the first in his family to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. "As soon
as I turned 18, I applied," he says. "I was going to be here, and I
wanted to vote. It was not without controversy in my family. You get
stuff from your brothers saying you're a traitor, you're no longer
Mexican. I said, 'I'm still Mexican, but I'm not going back to Mexico to
live. This is where I want to live. I want to be able to make a
difference, and to have a voice in what we do here.' After a while, it
slowly changed, and most of my brothers did it. My mom did it. They
realized you don't have to give up where you came from just because
you're a citizen."
The lesson has stayed with him.
"As a kid, there is
such a huge sense of wanting to fit in and to assimilate. But over time,
you come to realize that you can do that without getting rid of what you